Why are Toyotas so reliable? It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in the automotive world, and for good reason. Since the 1960s, Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota has continually been one of the more popular and well respected brands to sell automobiles in the United States market — and they didn’t get there by accident. Toyota has made a reputation out of selling ultra reliable, low-cost, and fuel efficient vehicles, and they have a huge following around the world. Let’s dig in to find exactly why Toyotas are so reliable.
The History of Toyota’s Reliability
Toyota’s history dates back to 1890, when Japanese businessman and inventor Sakichi Toyoda created the Toyota Wooden Hand Loom. A few years later, Sakichi invented the Power Loom, and then the Circular Loom and the Automatic Loom to even more success. However, the Toyodas did not stay in the loom business for long. In 1933, they began to manufacture automobiles. This culminated in the Model A1 passenger car in 1935, which used the A-type engine Toyoda had developed the year prior.
In 1936, Toyoda began mass manufacturing automobiles, and the next year Toyoda officially became Toyota Motor Company, later the Toyota Motor Corporation. Still, it wasn’t until 20 years later that Toyotas became available on the United States market. In 1957, they opened the Toyota Motor Sales division in Hollywood, California. In their first full year of production in 1958, Toyota sold 288 vehicles in the United States: 287 Toyota Toyopet Crown sedans and a single Toyota Land Cruiser. The Toyota spigot had officially been turned on for America.
When Toyota first came to the U.S., many customers were off-put by their cars’ low performance and new styling. However, once customers saw how well built they were, they started flocking to the brand in droves. By 1967, Toyota ranked third among all importers for sales, and the next year they introduced the now iconic Corolla. In 1975, Toyota became the top selling import brand on the United States’ market, where it still stands today.
In 1987, Toyota announced the introduction of their luxury brand Lexus for the U.S. market. Within a few years, Lexus had become the top luxury import into the U.S., continuing Toyota’s reign of dominance.
Today, Toyota continues to build on their history by flooding the U.S. market with affordable and quality automobiles. They have incredible brand familiarity and likability among U.S. consumers, and they frequently win awards for reliability, safety, and customer satisfaction. Their product line stretches to everything from compact coupes, to high performance sports cars and sedans, economic and luxury SUVs and crossovers, and they even have a huge part in the U.S. truck market, too.
So how does Toyota manage to consistently stay at the top of the reliability scale? Let’s look at the pillars of Toyota’s system, and then we’ll get into the actual nuts and bolts of how their automobiles have stood up over the years.
Toyota’s Pillars: The Toyota Production System
In order to mass produce the huge amount of vehicles they do, Toyota has developed what they call the “Toyota Production System.” According to Toyota UK Magazine, the system consists the following pillars:
- Andon (Sign of Signal)
- Gemba or Genba (The Place Where Real Work is Done)
- Genchi Genbutsu (Go See for Yourself)
- Hansei (Self-Reflection)
- Heijunka (Production Smoothing)
- Jikoda (Automation with Human Intelligence)
- Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)
- Kanban (Signboard)
- Konnyaku Stone
- Muda (Waste)
- Mura (Unevenness or Irregularity)
- Muri (Overburden)
- Nemawashi (Laying the Groundwork or Foundation)
- Poka-Yoke (Mistake-Proofing)
What Do They Mean?
Andon means sign or signal in English. For Toyota, it refers to the ability to highlight a problem and halt production to find a solution. It’s a key part of their quality control. Gemba or Genba translates to “the place where the real work is done” in English. It means the factory production floor is open and allows everyone’s actions to be visible to others. This helps to keep things in order and make potential improvements easier to spot.
Next is Genchi Genbutsu, which means “go and see for yourself.” Genchi Genbutsu refers to the need for everyone involved in the manufacturing process to be there in person to solve any problems. Hansei means self-reflection, as is the idea that every product and process can always use improvement, no matter how good it was. Heijunka means production smoothing, which ensures that production across all departments is smooth and harmonious with their suppliers.
Jidoka means “automation with human intelligence.” It’s the idea of having equipment automatically stop if any problems are sensed, which helps prevent defective manufacturing. The meaning behind Just-In-Time, is that everything is built to order. They don’t stockpile parts for future cars not yet bought, they wait until the car is ready to be built and then the parts are ordered and put into production.
Kaizen is the most famous and well known of the TPS. It means continuous improvement or good change. It’s about constantly improving every aspect of the system to make sure the best ideas and processes are always being put forward. Next is Kanban or signboard, and it allows the Just-In-Time system to work by organizing the production system.
The Rest of TPS
After Kanban is the Konnyaku Stone. Manufacturers use the stone to smooth body panels before paint. This helps ensure the smoothest possible surface and removes imperfections. Next is the trifecta of Muda, Mura, and Muri. They mean waste, unevenness or irregularity, and overburden. Essentially, it’s streamlining the manufacturing process to reduce waste and allow production to be evenly distributed. This means balancing production between different departments and allowing the principles like Heijunka, Kanban, Kaizen, and Just-In-Time to properly function.
Nemawashi is “laying the groundwork of foundation,” and it’s actually where the entire TPS apparatus begins. It means involving everyone in the company to be a part of the process and help gain a consensus of opinion. Everyone in Toyota is involved in making the company and the products better.
Finally, we have Poka-Yoke, or mistake-proofing. This refers to failsafe devices like sensors that shut down production when something is wrong. Similar to Jidoka, Poka-Yoke again helps to reduce mistakes and keeps only the best products for the consumer.
Together, these principles are what allow Toyota’s manufacturing process to be so reliable and trustworthy. Now, let’s look at how they have implemented the TPS and the results that have come from it.
Why Are Toyotas So Reliable?
There are a ton of reasons why Toyota’s are such reliable vehicles, from the engine to the body. I believe the main reasons are making their products underpowered and overengineered, focusing on practicality over performance on their vehicles, and using their large wealth of knowledge and experience to continue making reliable products.
One of the more common things people say about Toyota is that their engines are very often underpowered and overengineered. And to be fair, the majority of the time they’re right. However, what does that really mean, and is it actually a bad thing?
When people refer to Toyota engines this way, they’re referring to the idea that Toyota severely detunes their engines compared to what they are really capable of. For example, if you look at the Toyota lineup today, their engines prioritize fuel economy and efficiency over raw power and displacement.
Most of Toyota’s lineup is powered by 2.5 liter engines that make around 250 horsepower. There are obvious exceptions, like the GR86, Tundra, and Sequoia, but typically Toyota’s stay below 300 horsepower and torque. We’re not saying they are slow, but for what the engine can handle it’s pretty underwhelming. Many of these engines could easily make 300-350 horsepower, but Toyota deliberately makes them less powerful.
This is to help with reliability and longevity. Sure, they could squeeze the extra 50-100 horsepower out of the engine, but they probably wouldn’t run as long. Toyota’s are notorious for being able to clear the 200,000-250,000 mile marker with relative ease, and some of that is due to their engines being underpowered.
Historically, there is even more evidence of this. One of the best tuner JDM engines of all time is the Toyota built 2JZ-GTE. From the factory, the twin-turbo inline-six offered 320 horsepower. Respectable, but nothing compared to the 600-1,000 wheel-horsepower tuners regularly crank out of them. Enthusiasts widely regard the 2JZ as one of the most bulletproof engines ever made, but Toyota severely detuned them from the factory. Once again, underpowered but overengineered.
Practicality Over Performance
In addition to making their engines somewhat underpowered, Toyota overall focuses on practicality over performance. While they do have a few high performance models, like the GR Corolla, Supra, and 86, the majority of their lineup is built for the economy market. Generally, Toyotas won’t wow you blistering zero to 60 mph times or a suspension system that can crawl over giant boulders, but they deliver exactly what the average person needs and is looking for.
Toyota’s bread and butter has long been practical and economic sedans, and as the market has evolved they are now applying that to crossovers and even SUVs. When you buy a Toyota, you know what you’re getting. Something that isn’t going to be overwhelmingly flashy with a bunch of high-tech gadgets, but will be reliable and capable of safely getting you from A to B comfortably and for a long time.
Additionally, even their truck segment is less robust than the rest of their American competitors. The biggest truck Toyota offers is the Tundra, which uses a twin-turbo V6 and does not even have a V8 as an option. Compare that to the Ford F-150’s engines, which recently has had everything from twin-turbo V6s, to turbo-diesels, to even small-block V8s. Toyota definitely has a niche in the American market, and they have exploited it very well over the years.
A Wealth Of Experience
In addition to the above reasons, Toyota also draws on their considerable history and wealth of experience to keep themselves at the top of the reliability rankings. While the first few cars that made their way over back in the late-1950s and early-1960s had some issues, particularly with adapting to the difference in American roads and speed limits, for the last six decades Toyota has cranked out largely reliable and solid vehicles. Obviously, they know what they are doing, and if the formula isn’t broken then don’t fix it.
One of the biggest traps that many auto manufacturers have fallen into has been trying to reinvent the wheel and push products that consumers don’t need nor want (think bloated infotainment systems and other excessive tech). Toyota does an outstanding job of making sure their improvements are not rushed and are given the time to fully develop before being pushed to market. As a result, their cars are in the shop much less often for repairs and spend a lot more time on the road.
Additionally, Toyota products are much easier to fix than other manufacturers. It’s clear that the engineers considered making things like maintenance and fixing parts when they built the engines. While many engines will have bolts and screws in horrible locations that are practically unreachable without tons of other superfluous work, Toyota does a pretty good job of making their vehicles easy to work on. This might not sound like a lot, but it definitely makes fixing things and diagnosing problems 100x easier for mechanics.
Are Toyotas Really That Reliable?
All of this begs the obvious question: Are Toyotas really that reliable? Personally, I would say yes. I think Toyota’s are one of in not the best brand for reliability on the American car market today. Their entire lineup up and down is incredibly solid, and that goes back for decades. It’s amazing the amount of 1980s and 1990s built Toyotas that I still see on the road pretty much every day, and most of them continue to seem problem free.
In the last few years, Toyota has started to boost (literally, with turbochargers) the output of many of their engines. This has finally put them near the performance level of a lot of their competition, and Toyota is no longer associated with being slow and sluggish. Toyota has also embraced the hybrid movement and added the technology to a lot of their vehicles. Still, they have maintained reliability and longevity with their cars, which is pretty commendable.
Even Toyota’s sports cars, the GR86, Corolla, and Supra, are among the most dependable on the market. All of them offer substantial performance, especially the 3.0 Supra, but they don’t break down too often. It’s the perfect recipe for success, and one that Toyota has used very well.
Why Are Toyotas So Reliable? FAQ
Toyotas are extremely reliable because they balance performance with practicality and outstanding engineering. Many of the engines are underpowered and over engineered so to speak, meaning they are ultra reliable and dependable.
Toyota has been making some of the most dependable and reliable cars for the American market since the 1960s. They combine practicality with performance and use their extreme wealth of knowledge to continue cranking out exceptional machines.